Monday, June 25, 2007

An Outsider's Thoughts on the Federal Vision Thing

In case you haven't heard, the Reformed churches are being roiled by a new "Federal Vision." The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America has recently approved a statement that this Federal Vision theology is incompatible with the Westminster Standards, which would be something like the LCMS's Synodical Convention deciding that some new way of doing Biblical theology popular in segments of the LCMS pastorate was contrary to the Book of Concord.

In general, I don't see much point to people commenting on decisions by other denominations. It is for those who believe in the Westminster Standards to say what is or is not compatible with them. But in this case I think there are some general points worth making in this for Augsburg Evangelicals about the ways in which theology is and isn't done.

My source for the Federal Vision is going to be Peter Leithart's brief apologia here. The whole debate is big on acronyms so I'm going to call it FV-PLS (Federal Vision -- Peter Leithart style).

The most notable aspect about his apologia is the "twinning" of certain concepts, particularly election and union with Christ. For example election:

2. . . . "Election" can refer to the general election that applies to all who are members of the chosen new Israel or to the special, eternal election of the eschatological Israel.

7. Union with Christ and benefits: I do believe that some are united to Christ yet do not persevere (John 15). During the time they are branches in the vine, they do receive benefits from Christ through the Spirit and may enjoy real, personal, and deep communion with Jesus for a time. Yet, their relationship with Christ is not identical to the relationship of the elect. Put it this way: Some are united to Christ as members of the bride but are headed for divorce; others are united and headed for consummation. Marriages that end in divorce are not the same as marriages that end happily.

In other words, God elects some to be in Israel and the Church (and hence some temporary union with Christ), and elects a subset of them to remain in the church (and hence in a full and permanent union with Christ).

Now, this to a non-Reformed this sounds very strange, particularly the idea that "union with Christ" can be used for "benefits" short of salvation.

But I think it is very clear and instructive about how he gets to this position. First of all, he starts out from the Calvinist TULIP position (on that, see here). The essence of this position is that in all of God's dealings with man, He distinguishes the elect from the reprobate. Two sinners attend an evangelistic service, and hear a preacher's call to repent and believe. In one, an elect person, the Spirit is truly active, and gives alongside the preacher's call an irresistible "effectual call" -- the person accordingly believes, perseveres in the faith to death, and is saved. In another, the Spirit withholds His grace, the preacher's call is thus not "effectual," the person may or may not seem to believe but in any case does not persevere in the faith and eventually is not saved.

Now in this TULIP position, the dynamic above works with sacramental actions as well. What looks like identical baptisms of two infants has to be seen as actually two different baptisms in essence -- one an effectual call and one a mere outward call: not effectual and never intended by God to save.

As a result a Reformed Christian who has come to believe that TULIP is Biblically correct is forced to see baptism as at best ultimately ambiguous -- saving for the elect, but not for the unelect. This is so because of the unavoidable empirical fact which all paedobaptists (Catholic, Evangelical, Reformed) accept, that many who are baptized die without faith and are not saved.

Now, imagine you are a TULIP Presbyterianism, and you want baptism to actually do something to the baptized baby. You want baptism to really be a "washing of regeneration" as Paul writes to Titus. And you want the visible communion of Holy Communion today to be in some integral sense part of the future communion of the wedding supper of the Lamb. Now you want these things because the Bible obviously says them. They are expressed in both major themes and concrete proof-texts. Peter Leithart mentions for example 1 Cor. 6:11, Gal. 3:28-29.
Unlike an Augsburg Evangelical or Roman Catholic, however, you don't have the category of genuine apostasy. (More on this here.) You can't say: this baptism was indeed a true baptism of the Holy Spirit, but unfortunately as an adult she rejected God's grace and became an atheist. Or that when he was with us he was truly enjoying today communion with Christ in Holy Communion, but then he began living in adultery and his conscience was seared. As a Reformed, you can only say, they seemed to be Christians but really weren't.

Now there are two different ways to handle this dilemma. One is to rethink TULIP. Now the problem is, is that the Bible contains many statements which seem to give TULIP considerable force. It is not hard to assemble Biblical texts that seem to confirm the major planks of TULIP, at least when a certain amount of theological deduction is allowed.

But the problem is with other passages that just as clear seem to repudiate TULIP, and in particular envision the possibility of real apostasy. Leithart mentions 2 Pet 2:20, 1 Cor. 10:1-4, and John 15 (especially 15:6), but many more exist and have been thrown in the face of Calvinists by many generations of Arminians.

So the other response is that of Peter Leithart in his version of Federal Vision: to "twin" the major terms of election and union with Christ. All baptisms and all inclusion in the life of the church give you the weaker, temporary, collective version of this, but only real, Holy Spirit-endowed baptisms and church membership give you the true, permanent TULIP-style election and union with Christ.

As a type of solution, this is remarkably similar to the Dispensationalist solution of the problems of eschatology. Confronted by Old and New Testament passages that talked about the coming tribulation and coming Messiah and coming eschatology in seemingly contradictory ways, John Nelson Darby decided that there are actually two comings of Christ, two tribulations (before and after the millennium), two communities, Israel and the Church, and two types of eschatological fulfillment -- the 1000 year reign of Israel and the endless age to come.

The "federal vision" theology and dispensationalism are both ingenious. But both suffer one fundamental problem: they treat as two terms what in the Bible is only one. Is there any Biblical support for the idea that there are two sorts of Unions with Christ? Or that there are two sorts of baptisms? No more than there is any support for the idea of two (or three) "second comings". There is only one union with Christ and one baptism and one membership in the congregation of God -- and falling away therefrom.

A few conclusions that I draw from this analysis:

1) Despite all the talk about post-modern community, etc., etc., what seems to be driving the Federal Vision movement is the need to solve the puzzling passages of the Bible, the same puzzles that led to Calvinism vs. Arminianism, pedobaptists vs. credobaptists, etc. Bible puzzles are the key, not world views. (I've said this before here and here.) Now it is also important that all of these themes Peter Leithart is trying to juggle are truly vital and important themes, both in the Bible and in our lives. Making a chart-worthy scheme about these things seems rather more important than doing it about the end times, which either way we can only hope to get through by faith. But I take Peter Leithart at his word -- if passages like John 15:6 didn't exist, he wouldn't be a Federal Vision theologian.

2) The Federal Vision idea is indeed an attempt to repudiate the spirit of TULIP without violating the letter. In the end God deals only with elect individuals -- but in the meantime, He (and hence we) can deal with the whole church as semi-elect. It is also an attempt to affirm planks of "catholicism" (i.e. baptismal regeneration, the church and its Supper as the embyonic form of the kingdom, and something like the apostasy affirmed by Augsburg Evangelical, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox Christians) without rejecting the "Reformed" TULIP. This is why the Federal Vision is attractive to ecumenical-minded Reformed. At the same time, this is why it is of no interest whatsoever to non-Reformed "catholics". For us, it is an attempt to solve a problem we've never had. And by creating, for example, two levels of "Union with Christ"* it only further alienates Reformed theological language from the common "catholic" usage.

3) Like Calvin's attempt to somehow get the benefits of the Augsburg Evangelical view of the supper while sticking with the Zwinglian communion (on Calvinism as a compromise platform, see here), I doubt very much whether this Federal Vision position is workable in the day to day life of the church. As the Fearsome Pirate tirelessly points out, the Calvinist position on the supper (our soul ascends to Heaven to feed on the glorified Christ there) not only has Biblical basis, but is also pretty impossible to keep in your head at the communion rail. I have a feeling that the FV-PSL with its two levels of Union with Christ will prove not only un-Biblical but also pretty impossible for parents with about to be or already baptized babies to keep in their heads. They are going to either think those babies are not really saved, or else are saved (and elect, and predestined, and beyond any possibility of apostasy).

4) The Fearsome Pirate has commented here on the Augsburg Evangelical solas as above all guides to proclamation and preaching. He has pointed out here too that Augsburg Evangelicalism simply does not admit the idea of legitimate "hypotheses" in theology. Read them both -- I would only add that the two are related and that either would be sufficient to show the whole Federal Vision thing as based on a wrong foundation.

5) A FV, "New Perspective on Paul"-sympathizing Alastair has reacted to the PCA criticism of the Federal Vision by saying, in effect, the PCA has spoken, but the PCA is not the church -- so the church has not yet spoken. (His post here; more general follow ups here, here, and here). This wider view of the church is of course congruent with the ecumenical "reformed catholic" sympathies of the FV advocates. Yet the question is then: if theology is to admit "hypotheses" and "new directions" -- who is there to say when it is wrong? If the PCA is not the church who can decide, but the whole body of Christians is the ones who can decide, then the reality is nobody can tell the FV-PLS-ers that they are in fact wrong -- or right. If theology is to be about hypotheses, and not just proclaiming the Scriptures, then it really needs to have a magisterium.

*UPDATE: or a "Union with Christ" that is somehow short of forgivess of sins, life, and salvation.

UPDATE II: Mark Linville in the comments brought up Hebrews 6 as another passage which seems to describe union with Christ that is short of salvation. Here was my response:

It is interesting that you refer to Hebrews 6. I remember in a Bible study led by a very gifted TR (back when I was a PCA-er), the leader discussed this passage:

For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, if they then fall away, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

For him this was a problem because it seemed to envision genuine apostasy as a possibility. But he argued that

1) being enlightened
2) tasting the heavenly gift
3) sharing in the Holy Spirit
4) tasting the goodness of the word of God
5) tasting the powers of the age to come

did NOT add up to being saved. It was, he believed, as close as you can come to being saved and forgiven, but still not there yet.

I think you are correct, Mark, that this kind of reading of Hebrews 6 is exactly suited to fit the FV view of saving benefits. A TR can hardly object when this interpretation of the passage is then used to show that there are "benefits" short of forgiveness.

But note well: this distinctive interpretation was first created to defend the P of TULIP and seems completely implausible to anyone who has not first signed on to the "benefits short of forgiveness of sins" model entailed by the pro-P interpretation of this passage. To Lutherans, Hebrews 6:4-6 is simply referring to people who were saved and forgiven who then apostasized. (We then have the Bible puzzle of what to do about the apparent inability to be restored.) All those benefits are simply what you get along with, over and above, the forgiveness of sins.

Mark Linville then replied:

You are correct that Hebrews 6 is not a problem unless one hold to perseverance of the saints. I hold to that position because I believe that John 10:28, 29, Ephesians 1:13,14, etc. teach it. However, I recognize that brothers in Christ can disagree on this issue.

I agree with your TR friend who holds that this is something just short of salvation. If the writer of the Book to the Hebrews wanted to refer to the redeemed, he would have just said redeemed.

To which I would reply, the author of Hebrews is making an a fortiori argument: since the remissions of sins is the ground on which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are received, to have the gifts and then reject it is a fortiori more outrageous than to have the remission of sins and then reject it.

But to debate the issue of perseverance of the saints is not my purpose here. I just wanted to note once again how the gradual development of commentary on the Biblical passages opens new possibilities for "twinning" of terms, which then comes to govern interpretation by the resolution of what seem to be contradictions. The cost is, however, that the Bible becomes virtually unintelligible without extensive commentary, because one comes across terms and doesn't know (apart from commentary) what exactly they mean.

UPDATE III: Kevin Johnson seems to find this exact same problem in Steve Wilkins's response to the PCA. "Decretal election" vs. "covenantal election," "effectual union" vs. "non-effectual union" with Christ -- you can find it there, all governed by the need to affirm the perseverance of the saints, alongside Paul's apparent assumption that many who are united with Christ may fall away. For example Steve Wilkins writes:

[Paul] speaks of all who are washed (which I take as a reference to baptism) as being “justified” (I Cor. 6:9-11). If I am correct, Paul is not using this term the same way that the writers of the Confession are, because these same people are later warned against the possibility of falling away and being condemned (I Cor. 10:1-11). Thus, Paul is not referring to something that is only given to the decretally elect here.

To which Kevin Johnson comments:

It remains incredulous to me, for example, that Paul would use the symbol of regeneration to indicate anything other in the main than regeneration. There is no potential note of failure or doubt that real Holy Spirit inspired regeneration didn’t take place here in this passage and the “such were some of you” makes that very clear in my view.


Labels: , , ,